An interview with Christopher Hitchens following the publication of the third edition of his book on the Parthenon Marbles & why he feels that they should be returned to Greece.
Does your book offer anything to the case for the reunification of the Parthenon sculptures?
“Ohi. No, I have nothing new to add to the argument. It’s an old argument, nearly 200 years old. All I can say is that I can phrase the old arguments in maybe some fresh way, so that everyone can understand the history of this case. But the argument is always what it is, that it is aesthetically and artistically wrong to mutilate, to amputate, to partition, to smash up a work of art. That’s the essential argument. This is an argument that you can understand if you are Mexican or Latvian or Irish. You don’t have to be Greek or English – although it helps.”
I’ll play devil’s advocate on behalf of the British Museum. The argument of the non-existence of a suitable place in Athens to host the Sculptures has been de facto invalidated after the building of the New Acropolis Museum. How do you reply though to the argument that in London the Marbles can be seen in the greater context of the evolution of the global civilisation?
“There is no museum of any fame in the modern world which does not contain a great deal of Hellenic artwork. No museum would be complete without the art of ancient Greece, particularly of 5th century B.C. Athens. No Greek demands that any of these be returned to their country of origin, because they are indeed part of the civilisation of the human species. That’s why this case is different. Because this is a case where the work cannot be viewed. Imagine if we had the arms of the Venus of Melos, if we had her arms and they were in Reykjavik. I think they would be moved where she was. Don’t you? Imagine if Mona Lisa had been sawn in half during the Napoleonic Wars by some looter who had only escaped with half of it. One half of Mona Lisa was in Finland and one was in Lisbon. I believe there would be a move to see how these two halves would look if they were put together. It’s a very simple question.”
Is the Greek argument being heard in a different way now with the New Acropolis Museum?
“The Greek argument has changed somewhat since Melina Merkouri made it more famous; and even since Byron made it so famous. It is now less an argument about the rights of Greece, a Greece that was then a victim country, occupied and conquered, province of the Ottoman Empire, so much as it is a question about the integrity of artistic creation. Of course Greece has rights, but the Sculpture has the main right. In other words, for the British position to be consistent, the British Museum’s position to be consistent, they should really demand that all the remaining sculpture be brought from Athens and put in west central London, in Bloomsbury. Then they would of course have a much better collection to show the world and the British Museum would have an even better claim to be the treasure house of civilization. We would certainly have a better way of understanding how the frieze of the Parthenon is carved. But I have not yet heard anyone say that this would be a clever or justifiable idea.
So the core of problem for you is the “mutilation” that you mentioned?
“Yes. We are taught by Sophocles in his Antigone that it is natural in people to resent desecration, to resent profanity; that even those of us who are not superstitious do not like to see a body lying unburied in the street. It will always, for many British people and many others feel unnatural, wrong, and obscene that the sculpture of Phidias should be torn in half and scattered when we have it in our power to bring the figures together. It’s like seeing a Turkish soldier in Cyprus. It doesn’t look right.
How do you think that he Greek government should proceed with the campaign? Is the new Museum enough?
“I should say that although the essential morality and the ethic of the argument is unchanged by any recent development, the Greek government has enormously improved the situation and improved its own credit not by simply saying ‘they are Greek, they should be in Greece’, but by saying ‘we understand that there is a question of international patrimony, that we have a responsibility to protect and safeguard this work, that we haven’t always done so brilliantly at this and that we anticipate the criticism – we can house them, we can keep them, we can show then to masses of people all together and just next to that marvellous hill, with that same light and quality of air, in the context in which they were originally designed to be viewed’. Really no government could have done any more than what the government of Greece has done. So the reason why we have relaunched the book for the third printing in so many years is because now we can say the last objection has been met.”
How long do you think that the British Museum and the British government can keep the Marbles?
“I can answer the question with another question. How long would it be before any of us, millions and millions of British people stop considering this an insult not just to our Greek friends, our Greek allies, but to the idea of art itself? The answer in that is ‘never’. That will never happen. So one thing cannot happen and one thing can. The thing that can happen and I think will happen is that the British government, the British parliament, and the British Museum realise that they are being offered the chance not just not to lose something, but to gain something. To take part in something that is almost never possible, the restoration of a beautiful damaged work of art. To take the credit for helping to rescue a part of antiquity that was nearly lost. It is very solemn that the Museum is offered for free, for free this fantastic opportunity. How long can people possibly say no?”
How did you firstly get involved in this case?
“I read a collection of essays a long time ago by a now rather forgotten British writer, named Colin McGuiness. He was a writer and novelist of the 50’s and 60’s, this sort of bohemian writer of Soho and Notting Hill. His name must be Scottish or Irish or both. I was reading through his essays and he wrote about the marbles. I was very impressed by the article that I read. It stayed in my mind and then I read Nikos Kazantzakis’ book on England and his paragraphs on the Parthenon Marbles being buried in a cellar of the Museum. That had a very big effect on me. Then after the election of PASOK in Greece and the choice of Melina Merkouri as the Minister of Culture I saw that the argument was going to revive. I asked the editor of the Spectator, I was their correspondent in Washington at the time, if I could contribute an article. And then I got in my mailbox all the same arguments that these articles, McGuiness’, Kazantzakis’ and mine had already anticipated and defeated. I thought ‘oh, my God, well this is going to be easy’. Since then of course there has been a real shift in British opinion. The last time I saw this measured by opinion polls, which of course are reliable, the vast majority of the British believed they should be returned, and most of them gave us their reason, the reunification of the Sculpture. I believe myself that when we changed from calling it restitution to reunification, our committee, that was a decisive moment. The British Museum is much more defensive than it used to be. We don’t say ‘they are Greek, they belong to the southern Peloponnese’. No, we say ‘they belong to the world and the British and the Greeks need both to recognise that’. So the terrain, the ground of the argument is very much different now and much better. But of course I think there is also a matter of Greek pride involved as well, but it’s just not the main point.”